Yesterday I stood on stage at the sold-out TEDxManchester at the Bridgewater Hall, and spoke to about 2,400 people about my experiences. It was terrifying, but ultimately a really positive experience.
I've barely decompressed, and I'm going to write a full blog post about it all when my head is back together a bit, but for now here's the transcript of what I said, more or less:
On the evening of the 22nd of May last year, I was lying in bed, and (as I’m sure many of you often do), I was idly staring into my smartphone. I was about to go to sleep, when I noticed a lot of tweets suddenly appearing, filled with rumours emerging of some kind of accident in the city - a bang, a collision, something like that. And of course, with the internet being the internet, it was all just guesswork and speculation. I’d been in the city when the riots happened a few years back, and had seen the effect of widespread guesswork and outright fabrication of unfolding events. I couldn’t tell what had happened, and voiced my frustration, writing a tweet that simply said:
explosions/bangs of some kind happening at #victoria station, idiots already tweeting misinformation and conjecture. shut the f**k up.
I hit ‘send’, put my phone on silent, and went to sleep. Like any other night.
When I woke up the next morning, the first thing I did was pick up my phone again. It was immediately obvious that something was wrong - my phone was completely filled with hundreds of tweets, messages, emails, texts. Dozens of missed calls from numbers I didn’t recognise. I didn’t immediately understand what was happening, but after a few minutes of trying to read through this enormous pile of communication, it became very clear that the worst of the rumours had been true: there had been a terrorist attack at Manchester Arena. And, the reason I had been swamped by messages was that my younger brother Martyn was among the dozens of people reported missing.
He’d been to the Ariana Grande concert with friends. I didn’t even know he’d been at a concert, and I must confess: I’d also never really heard of Ariana Grande. For a while I thought he'd been to see a friend called Ariana Grande, and it's like - have you tried calling her? Knocking on? For context, exactly two weeks before this, I’d been at the arena myself, to see Iron Maiden - he was only two years younger than me, but my brother and I were worlds apart in many ways.
And so, this sudden panicked influx of communications came as an overwhelming shock, and was initially quite difficult to make sense of by back-reading hundreds of frantic messages.
What quickly became clear was that the concert had finished, and shortly after there had been an explosion in the lobby of the arena as people were exiting. At some point before the explosion he’d been separated from his friends. They were all safe and accounted for. His last tweet was about sneaking to the toilet during a Macy Gray cover, and that was the last we’d heard.
The day, for me and so many people, was the longest and most difficult day I have ever endured. The parents and families of the missing were taken to the Etihad football stadium, where an emergency zone had been set up. I spent much of the day at home, using social media and press contacts to circulate his picture to as many people as I could, scoured the feeds for any trace or hint of his presence, calling hospitals and emergency helplines with his description. I was in a complete panic, constantly refreshing my phone and two computers, with the TV news on in the background. At the same time, almost immediately, my life also became an ongoing battle with aggressive journalists, who appeared at my house and place of work (as if I’d be there), flooding my inbox and social feeds, phoning me, with one even going as far as pushing a note under my door - this was particularly jarring during a time of such stress, given that every knock could have been the police, or worse.
By the late afternoon we’d reached hundreds of thousands of people with his image and last whereabouts, and despite being able to pinpoint his location for most of the night (through people’s camera phone videos and his regular status updates) we’d heard nothing. As evening approached, I was bundled into a police car with my sisters, and we were raced to the stadium at with the sirens and lights on, busy traffic parting in front of us. A few hours later, we left the stadium together, carrying the heartbreaking knowledge that my brother had been identified as one of the 22 people who had lost their lives that day.
Everything changed in that instant, and the next few weeks were as difficult as any I’ll ever experience. Despite it all, the way the city rallied together was nothing short of incredible. I received more messages of support than I could possibly ever reply to. I watched Tony Walsh hold thousands of people rapt with a heartfelt reading of This Is The Place. I stood on stage at the Deaf Institute benefit concert, trying not to cry in front of a sold-out crowd as I thanked the city from the bottom of my heart. The true character of a place and its people comes out in a crisis, and I can honestly say that I’ve never been prouder of my city.
But, of all these experiences, there one particular part that’s important for me to describe to you. It was a few weeks after everything happened. The police reached out to each of the families involved, and said that it would be possible to visit the Arena. Many families, and members of my family, understandably chose not to. I ultimately decided I had to - I had to know. I had to see. And so, on a quiet afternoon a few days later, I found myself standing with some of my family members in the empty and completely silent lobby of the Manchester Arena. Around me, every surface of the space was marked by an uncountable number of deep shrapnel impacts. Every glass panel shattered, every metal surface punctured, every wall marked and cracked by impacts. Above me, a security camera looked at the centre of the room, it’s single glass camera lens shattered by a bolt. I’d not even considered what the room would look like, but… it wasn’t that. It was overwhelming.
I knelt on the floor in the centre of that room, and pressed my hand against the ground. Under my fingers, the polished floor tiles gave way to rough recessed damage, where the floor had been impacted badly in one particular place. I knew this was the exact spot the bomb had been detonated.
On the floor all around me were 22 red roses, positioned by the police for us, marking where each of the victims had fallen. Most were nearby, in concentric circles around the attacker. One or two were impossibly far away at the other side of the enormous space.
One of the roses, about seven feet away… almost no distance at all, had a small candle burning next to it. This rose marked where my brother had been found.
The reason I’ve described this scene to you, is that it’s important for me to explain that I have seen - in a very literal sense - the immediate devastation that an attack of this nature leaves on its surroundings. It’s impossible to comprehend the scale and ferocity of what occurs when a terrorist strikes in this way, until you’ve stood in the centre of the aftermath.
And yet despite having been witness to this destruction, I have learned enough from my experiences following it that I now understand, truly, that the full extent of the damage caused by an extremist attack extends far, far beyond what I saw that day.
What I have learned, and seen, is that effectiveness of a terrorist attack is measured not by it’s violence, it’s scale, or how many lives it claimed. The effectiveness of a terrorist attack is measured in how we as a society react to it. The true measure is how much fear it instills, how much division it creates between our communities, how much cultural change it puts our society under. Our responses, as both individuals and as communities, to these atrocities, is literally what imbues terrorism with its strength, and it’s power.
I’m not just speculating here. The Home Office published statistics last year that paint a grim picture: hate crimes rose by a third, 87% of which had race or religion as a contributing cause. These are conservative figures, as an enormous number of these crimes go unreported. Within the data, there are clear spikes in hate crime that align completely with extremist attacks in Manchester, London Bridge, Finsbury Park.
Let’s call this what it is: thousands of unjustified, retaliatory hate crimes against a peaceful Muslim population, in direct response to acts perpetrated by isolated violent extremists.
I have learned that those who respond to extremism with violence and bigotry and hatred against entire populations of people, are in fact doing precisely the least constructive and most damaging thing they could do. So much of this narrative is steered by our prominent right-wing press, who, when these attacks occur, call for closed borders and openly provoke racist hostilities to millions of readers: they’re playing their part perfectly. When a gang of thugs smash up a mosque, attack Muslims in their own homes, scrawl racist graffiti in public spaces - they form part of the damage. It’s not just about the bomb. It’s not just the attack that inflicts the damage. I have seen that it’s the physical impact is what we experience first, but the subsequent effects of this broken response to extremism are wide-ranging and immeasurably damaging to our communities.
The person who carried out the arena attack was the son of Libyan immigrants, who went to school a few miles down the road from me. My brother and I are ourselves the sons of a Turkish immigrant (my mother, herself a non-practicing Muslim). The obvious symmetry between us and the attacker was striking - we led similar lives in the same city, but at some point his path through life had diverged into radicalisation. I cannot comprehend how a young man - a boy, really - can stray so far from the right path.
This shows me something clear: by using the actions of extremist to demonise Islam, or immigrants, you demonise people like me and my family too. You demonise thousands of innocent people who share only a birthplace, faith, or culture.
This is why I spoke out.
Let me say it clearly for those at the back. Let there be no ambiguity about my feelings: if you are using extremist acts to validate your prejudice against an entire section of our society, you are straight-up racist. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “I’m not a racist, because Islam isn’t a race”. You’re splitting hairs at this point.
The far right seek to remove or control Islam, or immigrants, by holding up extremist acts as validation of their intolerance - and the net result of this is that Islamophobia has become completely normalised.
Look at the other end of the extremism spectrum: in June 2016, a white far-right neo-Nazi extremist murdered Jo Cox on the streets of the constituency she served. It speaks volumes that the right-wing newspaper that’s used it’s front page for decades to normalise anti-immigration prejudice didn’t do the same in this case, describing the perpetrator as a ‘loner with a history of mental illness’, despite the murderer screaming “Britain first” and “this is for Britain” during the attack. On the day he was jailed for life, that same prominent newspaper buried the story on page 30, instead of responsibly reporting the judge’s own verdict: that this murder was carried out to further a violent white supremacist ideology.
This is what the damage of extremism looks like: hatred breeding hatred, creating nothing but division and hostility. This is the cycle we must break.
I’ve described the destruction that these attacks cause, both in direct and indirect terms. As a citizen I obviously don’t have the power to stop an attack. But: as a citizen, I absolutely hold the power to effect change within myself and my community. But here’s the thing: we’re doing it wrong. My idea worth spreading is this: we are speaking to the wrong people about extremism.
Allow me to explain: Since the attack, and particularly since taking a public stance, I have spent a long time reading, and on rare occasions responding, to some of the most awful abuse and offensive argument you could imagine. And what I quickly learned, is that time spent attempting to meaningfully engage here is truly time wasted.
Attempting to rationalise or offer counterpoint to a view that is entrenched in racism and xenophobia is impossible. And this isn’t just online, although my inbox is truly breathtaking. I was there that day when a prominent far-right commentator decided to launch his self-published Islamophobic book in Manchester. He chose this city, our city, for one reason alone: and that was the attack that had been inflicted upon us. I was there with the counter-protest, and I heard the abuse screamed at me in real life. That kind of thing stays with you.
This often-hostile defence of Britishness pervades much of the argument put forth by the far right. I question what they’re supposedly defending - it doesn’t exist. I would argue, that real Britishness is intrinsically, inarguably built on a foundation of multiculturalism. The very fabric of our Britishness comes from an unlikely and glorious clash of cultures: our food, our music - every bit of our eccentricity. Genuine national pride is a fine thing, but this distorted hostile nationalism is not that, and stands completely against what makes this country truly great.
Those who disagree are labelled as traitors - I’ve been called this too. I’d argue that the traitors to our Britishness are those who aggressively misappropriate, subvert and weaponise our values against each other.
So, if this is not where the conversation happens, then where? In order to combat problems as massive as extremism and deeply-ingrained ingrained hostility, a true cultural shift is needed. And to do this, the conversation needs to be with the next generation of citizens.
Recently I became a founder member of Survivors Against Terror - an anti-extremism working group formed by Brendan Cox and a diverse group of others, who have all been affected by violent extremism. We aim to use our collective voice and experience to effect real, meaningful change within our communities, policies, and support networks.
Discussing these issues openly with young people is a key component of our grassroots work, and I’ve spent a lot of time speaking in schools and colleges about my experiences. When I go to these places, I don’t have slides, I don’t have a script. I converse with students, and I ask them more questions than they ask me. They are without fail, genuinely surprised to not be spoken down to, to be engaged in a frank and honest discussion about extremism and Islamophobia that in so many instances isn’t something that anyone has spoken to them about.
What I’ve found is that the young people I’ve been speaking to are hungry for information, for context, for balanced insight. Because: they’re forming their opinions based on the input they’re being given, which is often either the press, or those in the conversation who shout the loudest - not necessarily the right balance. And when a person receives all of their information from a source with an agenda, or from someone with extreme political views, without meaningful or considered counterpoint, well.... that’s where extremists come from.
And in their enthusiasm to engage with something that’s quite challenging, I see one thing: I see change. I see potential. And seeing this change in one student is worth enduring a million angry messages or screamed insults.
Or, let’s put it another way. And if you take any words away from this talk, make them these: Imagine a scenario in which the radicalised young man who carried out the Manchester atrocity had been exposed to voices other than those that led him down that path.
What happened in this city was a tragedy of unimaginable scale for so many of us, and we cannot let it’s legacy be more hatred and division. It took losing someone for me to realise that we all have a stake in this, and we all have the power to change things.
My brother’s name was Martyn, and believe me, he seized every moment.
My tribute to him will be to do the same.
(photo credits: Tynesight for TEDxMCR)